Our holidays were always to the former lead-mining village of Wanlockhead in the Southern Uplands of Scotland. It is the highest village in Scotland.
Wanlockhead approaching from the south.
The Mossy Burn, half a mile from the village, was one of our favourite picnic spots. It comes from the fishing dam just over the hill and contiues down Mennock Pass as Mennock Water.
Beside the Lowther Hills lies Wanlockhead,
The highest Scottish village, it is said.
There our Aunt Jean with Uncle Tom Dalziel,
At Fraser Terrace, number three did dwell.
When on holiday with no need for school,
To Wanlockhead we all went as a rule.
There was no electric power or gas,
No consideration of age or class,
Primus stove to cook, Tilley lamp for light.
Paraffin oil made it burn fairly bright.
There were no street lights. It was dark at night,
Except by moonlight; a wonderful sight.
Dry toilets there in a closet outside,
With a bucket and board to sit astride,
Quite often beside the outdoor coal shed,
Were used by many in old Wanlockhead.
No running water for inside the house,
A coal fire to warm Aunt Jean and her spouse,
As well as us children and mum and dad.
On cold rainy nights it made us feel glad.
Shop goods were delivered by horse drawn van,
Deliv'ring the goods I oft' helped the man,
Went round the village up hill and down dale,
The horse knew where to go and without fail.
When day's work was over with time to rest,
I sat on the horse, just like the Wild West.
He was a large carthorse and seemed so tall.
The man led us back to the stable stall.
No week at the seaside for us, but then
We loved the freedom of hill, stream and glen.
Roaming freely on those south Scottish hills
Was a joyful time without any frills.
Watching the sheep graze with lambs by their sides,
We played on the sheep paths, and more besides.
Blueberries grew on the side of the hill,
Till ripe and juicy then we ate our fill.
We played by a pond, caught tadpoles and frogs,
But often we found it rained cats and dogs,
Went back to the house as fast as we could,
Out to the wash house to play with some wood.
It was a good time to make a toy boat,
And hope, at the burn, it really would float.
With bamboo and paper we made a kite,
Hoping with wind it would fly to great height.
Walking to Mossy Burn for half a mile,
Let us sail home-made boats making us smile.
The burn grew wider right down Mennock Pass,
Well worth a long walk to play on the grass.
We gathered dry sticks to make a camp fire,
If we fell in the burn we soon felt drier.
Water from the burn was used to make tea,
Enjoyed by the adults; to some degree.
But we children preferred to drink Irn Bru,
Then played in the burn again. How time flew.
Soon it was time to walk back up the Pass,
And have a good meal. The food was first class.
Inside the house we would play many games.
To play quoits or darts sure tested our aims.
We played Ludo, Snap and Bagatelle too
And sometimes we'd go and make things with glue.
We had some good times exploring the loft,
And found many things we thought had been lost,
An old gramophone with records as well.
We played there a long time held in a spell.
Just over the road was the bowling green.
We watched the men play. They liked to be seen.
In the clubhouse, carpet bowls we would play,
Threw bowls t'wards the jack. They oft went astray.
Behind the green was the old curling rink,
Unused and unloved for some years, I think.
We kicked a ball there or went roller skating.
The old rink to us, was so captivating.
Those long summer days with freedom to roam
Kept us so happy, not thinking of home,
But time soon came to go home once again,
We missed Wanlockhead in sunshine and rain.
In my later teens after we had stopped going to Wanlockhead for family holidays I reminisced on those times and composed this poem.
On a recent visit to Wanlockhead I stood beside the stream that runs down throught he village. This was what we as children in the 1940s called "The dirty burn."
The contrast was amazing and I composed this poem.
Wanlock Water Then And Now
Down through the village flowed old Wanlock Water,
Not a place to linger or stay to potter.
Dry toilets then, in a closet outside,
With a bucket and board to sit astride
Were used by many in old Wanlockhead,
Making a task they considered with dread.
It had to be done but how, when and where?
The burn was the place if done with some care.
Making their way in the darkness at night,
Taking their buckets but well out of sight,
They emptied them there again and again,
In soiled Wanlock Burn that flowed down the glen.
Years have gone by and I now stand beside
A pure crystal stream I view with great pride.
Museum of Lead Mining stands nearby,
With visitors learning of days gone by.
Walking beside a disused railway line,
They follow the burn to see an old mine.
Adults sit on the grass in pleasant weather,
Admiring the hills and the purple heather.
Children play on the grass along the banks.
People panning for gold hope to give thanks
For the treasure they find, just now and then,
In clean Wanlock Burn that flows down the glen.
The Old Smiddy
Now Visitor Centre / Museum of Lead Mining
Village School in background
Robert Burns at Wanlockhead
So far as I can see, the background to this poem was the arrival of Robert Burns and his friend, Thomas Sloan in Wanlockhead in the winter of 1788/89. Coming from his home in Dumfries the journey would probably have been through the treacherous Enterkin Pass. Conditions were bad with ice and snow and the horses were slipping on the ice and the two men were unable to ride, so had to walk.
Burns asked a local farrier to turn or frost the edge of the horses’ shoes to enable them to get a better grip on the ice but he was either too busy or unwilling. ‘Pegasus’, the winged horse of Greek mythology, was the name of Burns’ horse.
Burns and his friend Thomas Sloan (Apollo) prevail upon John Taylor (Sol) a local man of influence to get them priority with the local farrier (Vulcan) to attend to their horses. Burns writes the poem to Taylor on the spot as payment/encouragement for this favour, and Sloan attaches a note to Taylor with the same request. The poem uses the imagery of Greek mythology. This worked and the farrier carried out their request.
It is said that the farrier often told how he had little money but he remembers helping a poet who paid him with money, with drinks and with a poem.
The poem is 'To John Taylor' but locally is often called 'Pegasus at Wanlockhead.'
To John Taylor
With Pegasus upon a day,
Apollo, weary flying,
Through frosty hills the journey lay,
On foot the way was plying.
Poor slipshod giddy Pegasus
Was but a sorry walker;
To Vulcan then Apollo goes,
To get a frosty caulker.
Obliging Vulcan fell to work,
Threw by his coat and bonnet,
And did Sol’s business in a crack;
Sol paid him with a sonnet.
Ye Vulcan’s sons of Wanlockhead,
Pity my sad disaster;
My Pegasus is poorly shod,
I’ll pay you like my master.
Wanlockhead in Snow
The smithy where the farrier turned the horses' shoes is at the foot of the hill on the right. It is now the Visitor Centre and Lead Mining Museum.
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